Using Financial Aid Data to Help Students Meet Basic Needs

A new report says using FAFSA data to identify students who qualify for public assistance programs will help pay for their basic needs and boost retention and completion rates.

student looking in the refrigerator at the grocery store

A growing body of research has shown that student persistence and college completion are strongly connected to and determined by whether students’ basic needs are being met. But college administrators are hamstrung by insufficient funding to fully address basic needs insecurity on their campuses and help students in a comprehensive way.

A new policy brief by Higher Learning Advocates (HLA), a nonpartisan research organization, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), says that although state and federal higher education funding alone is not enough to meet those needs, “millions of college students” could be better helped with existing government assistance programs for which they qualify but are unaware of their eligibility—or even how to apply for the benefits.

“One solution is to ensure students access all available financial support, including means-tested public benefits such as SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), subsidized health insurance, broadband assistance, and tax credits,” the brief states.

The brief, released earlier this month, argues that college administrators should leverage pre-existing data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, completed by millions of students annually, to inform them of their eligibility for the various benefits and help them apply.

The brief was based on an analysis of how colleges are using FAFSA data to alert students of their potential eligibility for benefits.

For example, data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows roughly two million of the approximately 3.3 million students who are eligible for SNAP benefits aren’t participating, which translates to $3 billion in unused benefits.

“What’s really beneficial about using FAFSA data is that it’s more targeted,” said Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, HLA’s managing director of policy and research. “Papering your school with signs that say ‘you might be eligible for SNAP’ is not as effective as sending an email or a text to a student and letting them know that they are likely eligible.”

HLA is not the first organization to make this argument. The Biden administration provided initial guidance on how colleges could best use FAFSA data to help students access public social welfare benefits in a Dear Colleague letter released by the U.S. Department of Education in January 2022.

The HLA brief contends that the guidance was only effective if colleges and universities actually put the recommendations into effect. A March 2023 survey of 359 college financial aid officers indicates that hasn’t necessarily been the case.